Four chairs

Recently I was lucky to be given the opportunity to give a London tour of my favourite parts of the capital to some friends, one of which is a painter blessed with a considerable talent.

So, naturally, the tour was given an ‘artistic’ slant and curiously featured some of the capital’s chairs.

Our first stop, on the full day tour, was St. Mary’s, Battersea, where J. M. W. Turner in his latter years would paint.

[W]hen Turner decided to return to London with his Margate landlady Mrs Booth he lived with her at Davis Place, Chelsea (now 119 Cheyne Row), under the pseudonym of Admiral Booth. It was his habit of a morning to ask on old waterman, Charles Graves if he predicted a fine day. Given to set-fair he would employ Graves to ferry him across the river to St. Mary’s, Battersea a little upriver from his home. Later Graves’ son, a painter and waterman, would later row James Abbott McNeil Whistler about Chelsea Reach.


Turner’s chair

From the vestry, Turner would view the Thames through an oriel window and paint some of his sublime works. The chair he would rest upon, now predictably called Turner’s Chair, is still to be found within the church.

Our next chair was at Truefitt and Hill the oldest barbershop in the world, considering they claim to count many of the rich and famous among their clients, surprisingly they were good enough to let us see the chair used by, among others, Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Montgomery of Alamein. A current customer, although not seated within their august walls at the time, is the Duke of Edinburgh.


Churchill’s chair

Next ‘chair’ was a fictional one. In 1951 Abbey National hosted a Sherlock Holmes exhibition for the Festival of Britain. It featured much Holmes’ ephemera including crumpets supplied each day by a local baker and left on a plate with two different sets of bite marks. When the exhibition was over, it went on a world tour before returning to London.


Sherlock’s chair

A publican of a Charing Cross pub, the Northumberland Arms (then re-named The Sherlock Holmes), bought it exhibits and put them on display in an upstairs room where it remains to this day. It features what Holmes’s study would have looked in Victorian London.

Our last ‘chair’ was considerably less comfortable, and connected to a profession being decimated by the burgeoning cab trade; much like our modern nemesis – Uber. A short walk from Shakespeare’s Globe is Bear Gardens and near its original location is a ferryman’s seat. It is quite narrow and very uncomfortable, presumably early cabbies were more stoic – and thinner than today.


Ferryman’s chair

Although the exact age of the seat is unknown, it’s most likely to have been established around the 12th or 13th century; a period when London was beginning to spread south, where Southwark was gaining a reputation as a seedy but popular entertainment district.

Unfortunately, the city had just one river crossing – London Bridge – the result of which caused jams, which it could take over an hour to cross the river. Combined to this was the additional hazards of mugging in the slow moving traffic and getting contents of chamber pots which were lobbed out of the ramshackle houses lining the bridge.

The ferrymen provided this efficient form of transport until the building, in Victorian times, of London’s bridges, and cabbies were prepared to go ‘Sarf’ of the River.

Featured picture: The Thames above Waterloo Bridge J. M. W. Turner, painted in the 1830s. This unfinished painting takes us to the heart of the smoky commercial capital which, though a Londoner by birth and resident for most of his life, Turner usually preferred to depict from a distance. Here he looks along the Thames towards Waterloo Bridge © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0)

A paddle on the Thames

I’m looking at a book given to me by a good friend, for Christmas or my birthday, I cannot remember. The prosaic title London’s Changing Riverscape belies the wealth of information between the covers, written by five enthusiasts of The Thames it shows both the river’s banks from London Bridge to Greenwich.

There’s a reason I’ve fished this book out from my bookshelves, for that same friend has given me for my 70th birthday.

[A] round trip from the Pool of London to Whitstable on the paddle steamer Waverley, the world’s last remaining seagoing vessel of its kind, and I have a tenuous connection with this venerable ship, described by the operators as ‘Britain’s largest interactive exhibit’, as this historical craft was first launched in the year of my birth.

I must, at some time, have driven down every street within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross, but never have I sailed down the Thames.

In the early light, there is a fine drizzle, not an auspicious start to the day. We lie moored alongside the grandly named Tower Millennium Pier, not that the ticket details give the correct name of the pier, nor a postcode that’s recognisable by my satnav.

We’re facing upstream and traffic is light upon London Bridge, which owing to Waverley’s height we cannot negotiate. I’m reminded that an earlier London Bridge caused such traffic jams, as carts would be forever running into each other, it precipitated an urgent rule that all traffic should drive on the left. The rule by the City Fathers would later be incorporated into the Highway Act of 1835 and was adopted throughout the British Empire.

The Waverley is doing what it was built for, taking day trippers out upon British waters for the proverbial trip round the bay, or in this case a trip around the Thames estuary.

Named after another ship which acted as a minesweeper in World War I and was sunk at Dunkirk during the Second World War, the Waverley has been lovingly restored and the only nod to modernity is the new lifeboats, escape ladders and fire extinguishers.

Tower Bridge is raised as one of the modern Thames Clipper Shuttles sound its horn by way of salute. This Victorian bridge often thought to be much earlier by some of my passengers was opened – literally – by the Prince of Wales in 1894, his mother, Queen Victoria described the reasons for its construction in less regal terms as – bosh!

Others were as equally opposed to this artery between the City and the south bank, known as Jacob’s Island, which Dickens used as Bill Sykes’s lair. Dickens went further to describe Tower Bridge’s construction as:

. . . the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants

After Tower Bridge on our port side, as we should refer to the north side of the Thames for this part of the journey came St. Katherine’s Dock built between 1826-1828 at the cost of demolishing 1,200 houses, a hospital and a church. In all 11,000 inhabitants were displaced. After all that the dock would remain a working facility for only 140 years.

Further on much of the wharves have disappeared and the riverbank given over to modern apartments, which the architects seem to have a competition amongst themselves as who can design the most offensive in terms of looks. The first real evidence of the river’s industrial heritage is not encountered until we reach Wapping where many of the original warehouses have now residential usage – loft apartment living I think is the jargon.

But first in our sights were a pair of fine Georgian pier houses once the home of senior officials of the London Dock Company. With good reason did they live adjacent to their workplace, the wool warehouses alone occupied nearly one million square feet of storage. The valuable spices each were kept separated in their own store building and as recently as when I was on the Knowledge you could smell the aroma of the various exotic spices.

London Trivia: First Blitz

A plaque marks the spot where on 24 September 1917 the old Bedford Hotel stood on Southampton Row in Bloomsbury, recording that on the day a 112lb bomb was dropped from a German Gotha in one of London’s first night air raids, killing 13 people and injuring a further 22. The airships were vulnerable to the vagaries of the wind and British fighter aircraft, to counter these the Germans developed powerful twin-engined Gotha bombers.

On 24 September 1842 a bronze statute of the Duke of Wellington astride his horse, Copenhagen was conveyed to Hyde Park Corner

The Boundary Street Estate London’s first council estate was built on the rubble of the Old Nichol, once a notorious criminal area

In 2003 Temple Bar Trust bought the gate for £1 it was returned to London stone by stone and re-erected as an entrance to Paternoster Square

William Blake (who wrote the lyrics to Jerusalem) married Catherine Boucher at St Mary’s, Battersea in 1782

Nancy Astor, the first woman take a seat in Parliament after a by-election in December 1919 and was elected as a Conservative for the Plymouth, once lived at 4 St James’s Square, Westminster

In 1891 Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, penned his first 5 short stories at 2 Upper Wimpole Street then known as Devonshire Place

A red, white or black flag was flown outside the Globe in Shakespeare’s time to denote a history, comedy or tragedy

London’s oldest sports building still in use for its original purpose is the Real Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace, one of its walls dates back to 1625. Today the court is listed Grade I

The Central line introduced the first flat fare when it opened the tuppence fare lasted until the end of June 1907 when a threepenny fare was introduced for longer journeys

Elephant and Castle is named from a pub whose sign was the symbol of the Cutlers who made cutlery with ivory handles

It costs £4 million a year to advertise your firm on Piccadilly Circus’s neon sign which measures 21.1 metres by 4.8 metres

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

Down Your Alley: Craig’s Court

Walking down Whitehall away from Trafalgar Square, after for about 70 yards along the east side is Craig’s Court opposite the Whitehall Theatre. If you chance across Craig’s Court, there is a tenuous link to CabbieBlog’s previous post – tart cards – down this little alleyway you will come across the façade of Harrington House, now a secret telephone exchange, but once a mansion bearing the name of its builder, the Earl who built it.

[W]hen John Stow trundled down the Strand clutching his parchment and quill he stopped at the Eleanor Cross, squinted at the panorama, shook his head, and recalled the good old days, which inspired him to write:

Then was there a hospital of St Marie Rouncivall by Charing Cross (a cell to the priory and convent of Rouncivall in Navar, in Pampelion diocese) . . . Near unto this hospital was a hermitage a chapel of St Katherine, over against Charing Cross.

This hermitage and chapel had been formed about 1255 but in his determination to rid England of Papal authority nothing escaped the searching eye of Henry VIII and it lost out after the Reformation.


When Whitehall Palace burnt down, Lord Harrington was convinced that the Palace, the centre of power and privilege in the mid 18th Century, would be rebuilt on its original site. Living next to the King meant Harrington could visit the Court every day and seek patronage. Patronage like today meant a title or a job needing little or no work or skills, but an income. Known as Old Corruption it was the way of the world for a corrupt government. Unfortunately for Harrington he was wrong the palace wasn’t built and Parliament was located half-a-mile away from his huge home at the other end of Whitehall.

Until the 1761 London’s streets had no pavements at all, no delineation from that part of the roadway where wheeled vehicles travelled and that part where pedestrians walked, so when a carriage driver wanted, he would simply drive along the street as near to the walls of the houses as he liked. This meant, of course, that going for walk was a hazardous business as London at that time had far fewer wide streets than it does today, (that is why the City has no thoroughfares called road, as a road in early London meant that it was capable of taking two carts side by side, clearly impossible in medieval London), it also meant that in particularly narrow streets, carriages occasionally got stuck – quite literally – between the houses.

Kerbstones and pavements began to appear after the Speaker of the House of Commons, Mr Speaker Onslow, got stuck in Craig’s Court after a visit to Harrington’s House. Parliament had long debated what to do about the narrow, dirty, dangerous streets of London, but they could never reach agreement about who should pay for improvements.

Then one day early in the 1760s Onslow drove in his massive, stately carriage up Whitehall and into Craig’s Court. At the narrowest part of the alleyway where it opens into the courtyard, his carriage got stuck fast between the walls of the houses on either side. If there had been kerbstones and pavements the driver would have been stopped before he got stuck. After fruitless attempts to extricate the carriage, a red-faced and by all accounts extremely angry Mr Speaker Onslow had to be extricated through a hole cut in the roof of the carriage, now wouldn’t you like to see that in today papers?.

In 1748 this Court was the home of Teresa Constantia Phillips. She was a truly scandalous character who had just published a rather spiky version her memoirs. So outrageous were the contents of her publication that the police were provoked into seeing her answer to charges in court. It is said that early one morning no fewer than 13 constables surrounded her house in an effort to bring about an arrest. Mrs Phillips took advantage of the situation and from the bedroom window promoted her book to the officers and assembled spectators. It appears that she managed to resist arrest and later fled the country to take up residence in foreign parts.


CabbieBlog-cabMuch of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.

Tart Cards

The early phone boxes were made tall enough for a gentleman to enter its confined space without removing his top hat.

But since the advent of mobile phones, they have met a swift and inglorious end. So prevalent was their new function taken to be, as a urinal, sloping floors were constructed to aid cleaning.

Another function has been to advertise ‘adult’ services.

[C]uriously one of the world’s leading medical history libraries, the Wellcome Library, is home to the world’s largest collection of ‘tart cards’, with over 4,500 collected since 1991, despite Westminster Council passing laws outlawing them and officials going round removing them on a daily basis the cards have appeared with relentless regularity.

This unique form of advertising by ‘ladies of the night’, has become the raison d’être of the central London phone box.

Phone boxes have been the usual depository for countless numbers of these small ‘business’ cards, promising all sorts of forbidden pleasures, from spanking to transsexual encounters, in the privacy of your hotel room or in fully equipped chambers.

The earliest cards in the Wellcome collection date from the start of the 1980’s, and it is interesting to see how these little adverts have evolved over the decades. The first is simple, homemade affairs, photocopies glued on to cardboard, while by the 21st-century colour printing and photoshopping had become widely available and the production much sleeker, many presumably having an image far removed from the actual person providing these services.

Content has changed too, as boundaries have shifted. In the 1980s discretion was still important. The cards contained little more than a phone number and imagery would be restricted to a drawing of a female form. But as taboos fell away, so the cards became more upfront and witty, with revealing photos, images of girls dressed up for role play, explicitly jokey straplines and a wider range of services more openly offered.

And the ladies too are different. Whereas 30 years ago they were predominantly British, London’s ‘working girls’ today reflect the city’s increasingly multicultural character.

In 2003 it was estimated that about 13 million cards were placed in London phone boxes each year.

But with BT planning to press Button B to cancel calls in 20,000 phone boxes – about half the remaining booths – these advertisers will now have to find other ways including the internet and mobile phones to provide more modern and efficient ways to do business.

Tart cards acquired something of a cult status. Tourists were known to take them and send them home as postcards; even kids, bored with trading Pokémon cards, collected them. Once the emblem of a sleazier side of life, their days are numbered. No more will we able to peruse the like of this literary gem from February 1992:

Roses are red;
violets are blue,
St. Valentine’s coming;
and so may you.

Featured image: A selection of cards from the Wellcome Trust (CC BY 4.0)